Mar 25, 2009

Learning practice

My yoga practice today got me thinking about learning. When I started going to Sattva Yoga almost a year ago, it was hard to follow along and do all the poses. I asked Chuck, my teacher, if he had a handout or something that showed the right way to do them. He told me he didn’t, because the “right” way was unimportant. He said I’d learn as I kept at it.

As they teach, Chuck and Leslie will correct a pose with gentle hand to help you straighten an arm or a shoulder, support a wobbly leg on a balance pose, or move a bolster under your back on a lying down pose. I used to obsess over what I was doing wrong whenever anyone did this. I’m one of those people who grew up wanting to do everything right, to avoid criticism or blame, to have all the answers.

Culturally, we’re immersed in the blame game. Congress, the press, and most of the people we know are going on and on about the AIG guys and Tim Geithner and million dollar bonuses. We really want a scapegoat for our scary economic situation. It’s as if finding someone to pin the blame on will fix the whole problem or make us feel better. We’re not able to say that giving the bonuses was just a poor decision. Amid the 10,000 things he has going on, we castigate Geithner for not putting the kibosh on this.

A bit of blame is also being applied at a local 240-hour continuous concert marathon. There’s a schedule on the website that’s not being updated. Of all the processes that had to be invented in a couple of months, that one had a failure. Some people are complaining about that, and glitches in the webcast and the sound system, along with a few scheduling mixups.

Fortunately, most people involved in the marathon see that it’s a miracle that so many things are going right and fixes are being improvised on the spot as problems occur. Camaraderie and collaboration have developed.

[Joke from the webcast chat board: How many sound techs does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: 24. One to change the light bulb and 23 to say how much better they would have done it.]

We need to keep reminding ourselves that continuous improvement means learning by doing. Mistakes are normal. No complex system has every worked perfectly. Toyota knows this.

My yoga teachers are helping me find out where to place my body in space so it is stretched and strengthened, and muscle memory will get me approach the optimum each time I practice. Without their guiding hands, I wouldn’t make the same progress toward the full benefit of yoga.

If only the same learning orientation was being applied to our economic situation. If we had a learning culture, we wouldn’t single out Geithner or anyone else to take responsibility for fixing the economy. Or rake up more examples of people and practices to rant about.

It is probably good to surface the question of whether employees of failing companies should get millions of dollars in incentives. It’s a worthwhile dialogue that might or might not yield consensus. Could we have a real dialogue about the wisdom of creating and selling derivatives, or should we chastise certain people for having allowed the game to be played? Should we take the opportunity to simply adjust breakdowns, and acknowledge that some of the adjustments will need correction as we see how they work?

That would make for boring radio and TV news. Blaming gets the emotional juices flowing. We get a certain pleasure when we take the privileged kid out to the playground and beat him up. But that doesn’t help anybody get a job.

And back at the café, hundreds of people are taking their turns on stage, and others are working long shifts at the soundboard and fixing microphone and guitar cable problems. For the most part, the webcast has been fabulous, once it was found that no one else can use wifi in the café for the duration. That interfered with the ability to update the website. The schedule was being meticulously maintained in a master notebook that can’t be removed from the café, and apparently resources weren’t put in place beforehand to keep the website updated.

Simple mistakes. By the time that one process can be dealt with, the event will likely be over. The important thing is that bands are on stage for their time slots, or filling in when there’s a no-show, and the concert continues. Changeovers are getting more efficient. The sound guys are getting more skilled at running a new sound system.

Adopting that learning attitude is hard. It’s not Japanese or zen. It’s not yoga. It requires that you turn your inner feelings about right or wrong, correct or incorrect, humiliation or support, upside down. There’s nothing gained by fretting or complaining. It doesn’t help to waste people’s time in needless and embarrassing press conferences when they could be studying and understanding processes, thinking about the breakdowns and testing adjustments.

For us little people, there are things we can’t control. But we can always practice learning.

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